Despite a national ban in Singapore, Yale-NUS is pressing ahead with its plans to show a film that has been deemed by the Singaporean government as a threat to the country’s security.
The film, “To Singapore, with Love” documents the lives of nine Singaporean exiles — among them trade unionists, communists and student leaders — and was slated to be shown at the National University of Singapore Museum at the end of the month. But earlier this month, Singapore’s Media Development Authority classified the film as NAR, or “Not allowed for all ratings,” claiming that it unfairly suggested that exiles are being denied their right to return to the country.
The categorization prevents the film from being shown or distributed in the city-state of 5.4 million.
“By doing this, MDA is taking away an opportunity for us Singaporeans see it and to have a conversation about it and our past that this film could have started or contributed to,” Tan Pin Pin, the filmmaker, said in a statement. “Now, the irony [is] that a film about Singapore exiles is now exiled from Singapore as well.”
The banning of the film quickly raised ire amongst Yale professors, including longtime Yale-NUS critics including English professor Jill Campbell and political science lecturer Jim Sleeper, who characterized the ban as a threat to freedom of expression at a college stamped with Yale’s name.
But despite the MDA ban, Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said the film will be shown in a course on documentary film later this semester on his campus. Lewis said that Yale-NUS checked with MDA about the screening of the film and received the response that the MDA “had no problems with our plans.”
Lewis said governmental restrictions in Singapore generally do not affect educational material. There are exceptions under national law, he said, that allow materials which would otherwise be restricted to be used on-campus for educational purposes.
“Academic freedom and open inquiry are bedrock principles of Yale-NUS College. Our faculty teach freely on a wide range of subjects, and we have not faced any restrictions on our curriculum,” he said.
The ban, as well as Lewis’ reassurance about the film’s screening at Yale-NUS, comes on the heels of Yale President Peter Salovey’s full-throated defense of free expression during his freshman address in August.
Salovey said he was pleased to learn that the film will be screened in a Yale-NUS film course, adding that he expects the Yale-NUS campus to be a place in which “the principle of free expression of ideas is respected.”
Yet the decision to show the film at Yale-NUS is only a small reassurance to critics of the school who have publicly voiced opposition to free speech restrictions in Singapore for several years. Since the creation of Yale-NUS was announced in 2009, Yale administrators have faced a constant stream of concerns about Singapore’s tight policies on individual freedom. The freedom of faculty and students to engage in controversial issues and a true liberal arts education has also been a topic of debate.
“I would say [showing the film] is a step in the right direction,” said Hank Reichman, the chair of the American Association of University Professors Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. But he added that the move is far from enough to address all the questions that the AAUP raised in 2012, when it released an open letter expressing concern about freedom of speech at Yale-NUS.
The extent of Yale-NUS’s commitment to free speech is still uncertain, Sleeper said, given that it is unclear what kind of understanding the college has reached with the Singaporean government.
Six Yale-NUS students interviewed said they do not feel impacted by government-sponsored censorship in the materials they study or the conversations they have. Yale-NUS student Zachary Mahon said students read Salman Rushdie’s novel “Shame” in their Common Curriculum literature course, and have “The Satanic Verses” – which was written by the same author and banned in many countries including Singapore – available to them in their library.
Nicholas Carverhill said that earlier this summer the National Library Board decided to ban three children’s books because they depicted “alternative” family structures and values. As a response, Carverhill said he purchased the books in Canada and brought them over to Singapore to donate to Yale-NUS, which included them in its library.
Mahon said he perceives Yale-NUS as a “safe haven” for controversial materials within the state — but added that he also generally feels like he is able to do what he pleases in Singapore.
“I do not feel there is anything we cannot talk about. We criticize the government all the time, both inside and outside of the classroom,” he said. “This is only natural as it is necessary to acknowledge the flaws of anything in order to progress.”
Tamara Burgos said entertainment or documentary films that may broaden students’ perspectives and be helpful educational resources for them should be available to all.
Yale administrators have long expressed hopes that Yale-NUS’s presence in Singapore will encourage the expansion of free expression in the city-state of six million — a hope that Salovey continued to express despite the ban.
“Time will tell whether an emphasis on free expression as we’ve come to enjoy it in American society is experienced similarly in greater Singaporean society,” Salovey said. “My personal view is that the existence of a campus like Yale-NUS College creates some momentum in that direction.”
Before the ban, “To Singapore, with Love” was slated to be shown along with two of Tan’s earlier films at the NUS Museum.
Correction: Sept. 18
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that students read Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” as part of their Common Curriculum. In fact, students read “Shame” by the same author, and had “The Satanic Verses” available to them in the Yale-NUS library.